Downing Barber

Downing Barber, CEO and founder of the Barberitos franchise. The first Barberitos restaurant opened in Athens in 2000. (Courtesy/Barberitos)

Barberitos’ growth from its downtown Athens origins has been significant. The chain was started in 2000 by Downing Barber, and it now has 50 locations across seven states. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, the chain has seen growth.

Barberitos had to quickly improve its takeout, curbside pickup and online ordering capabilities in March, and it also began offering delivery and family meal kits. Despite the pandemic, Barberitos saw an increase in same-store sales revenue and total store revenue in July, according to a press release. The chain attributes this rise to adapting well in the changing world of dining out during COVID-19.

The Red & Black talked to the founder and chief executive officer of Barberitos, Downing Barber, about the adaptations the chain has made, the Athens community and upcoming 21st anniversary celebrations for Barberitos.

The Red & Black: After realizing the seriousness of the pandemic, how did you start to communicate with your 50 plus stores about what your next move would be?

Downing Barber: We set up a hub of a few team members, and we have our intranet, called “Barbs Live,” as our main communication. All of our users can log onto that intranet and we can communicate that way about what we are hearing from not only our state, but all the states we are in. We had a centralized communication channel and each one of our operation reps have assigned franchisees to communicate with. We had to buckle down, we had to work remotely, and we basically used what we had already created.

R&B: What have you learned from the experience of managing these restaurants during the pandemic?

DB: We have learned better communication and efficiency. We have learned how to adapt to takeout, curbside and take orders over the phone. We have adapted our app and online ordering. We have adapted a lot to still serve the customers, it’s getting better. But curbside takeout was the majority of our business through the spring and summer time.

R&B: I saw that sales actually went up in July. Do you think that was due to the quick adaptation to curbside service?

DB: I do. I do think that during that time, the overall sentiment was getting better, and people were more understanding of what was going on — and wearing masks. I think the public was getting out more, and everybody was eating through curbside. We adapted very well to do, and it helped us out through the summer for sure.

R&B: Now we’re getting into the winter. Have you seen any opportunities? I know one store has opened and some are using this time to remodel.

DB: Yes. We’re closer as a group, first off. We all know we have each other’s backs. The brand itself proved its strength going through the pandemic. On a positive, we have opened a few stores. We’ve learned how to appreciate life a lot better, knowing things can happen overnight and you never know what tomorrow will bring. I think I have a better attitude about life.

R&B: Do you have any message to give to the Athens community or fans of Barberitos in general about the future?

DB: Any chance I get, I tell people thank you. The customers of Athens have made the brand what it is. Without the customers, we are not anything. I’m always grateful for people who do love Barberitos and support us. In the future, we’ll have some new, interesting things, we’ll have our 21st anniversary.

Our 20-year anniversary got COVID hit, which was fine. We’re gonna take that as, “okay, you can’t stop us.” We’re going to launch our 21st campaign and bring back some retro things from the beginning of the downtown store, some of the uniforms and shirts and things like that. We’re going to do some retro throwback things during our 21st anniversary.

R&B: On a personal note, what is your favorite restaurant in Athens?

DB: Outside of Barberitos, I’m a big Hugh Acheson fan, Five & Ten. I’ve eaten a lot at Donna Chang’s. I gotta shout-out my ex-employee Noah Brendel and the great job he does at Sea Bear. Chuck’s [Fish], I like sushi. I eat everywhere! Anywhere in the restaurant business in Athens, I give love to them. Anyone in the restaurant business, I try to support. I’m all over the place, but if you want my favorites, those are my tops.